‘We watched breathlessly, praying for inner strength as the missile took off’

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By Tessy Thomas is an ordinary, down-to-earth woman who unwinds by watching television serials and cooking. Kavitha Shanmugam meets India’s missile woman
  • Published 29.04.12

Some 30 years ago, a wide-eyed, impressionable girl stood beneath a towering rocket inside one of India’s earliest rocket launching stations in Kerala.

The rocket was readying to be fired in a few days. The student, on a school trip to the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thiruvananthapuram, quietly relished the experience of being near a real rocket — “fascinated” by something she knew “little about”.

Today, Tessy Thomas — dubbed agni putri or the daughter of fire by the media — is the project director (mission) of Agni V at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) station in Hyderabad. She was one of the key players in propelling India into an elite club of nations, by leading and being part of a team that developed the long-range, inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) — Agni V. The missile was successfully test fired last week from Wheeler Island in Odisha.

“I have been with Agni since its inception and watched it grow. I’ve also grown with the project,” says 48-year-old Thomas, dressed in a silk sari and sitting comfortably in her small flat in one of the many nondescript, staff quarters inside the sprawling DRDO complex.

Thomas, with her pleasant, smiling face and somewhat plump build, doesn’t look a progeny of fire. She is more like one’s image of an agony aunt in the neighbourhood who is always ready to offer someone a shoulder to cry on.

The interiors of the flat are not a pointer to the scientist’s career either. She is surrounded by photographs of Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa and of her football-crazy son, Tejas. Scores of medals won by him hang inside a glass showcase. And there’s a wedding picture of a much slimmer Tessy with her naval captain husband, Saroj Patel.

Young Tessy’s life trajectory took a significant turn when after a BTech in electrical engineering in Kerala, she applied for a postgraduate course in guided missile technology.

“Most of my batchmates from my engineering class were applying to Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and BEML Ltd. But I was drawn to this course. It was sponsored by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and we were assured of a job in the organisation once we completed it,” she says.

She cleared the written test and was one of 10 people selected from all over the country. The course didn’t just steer her towards the career of her choice, but acted as Cupid too. It was while studying at the Institute of Armament Technology (now called the Defence Institute of Advanced Technology) in Pune that she met and fell in love with an Oriya naval student, Saroj Patel.

Thomas taught for a year, and then joined the DRDO Lab in 1998. From the start, she was assigned to the department of design and development of the new generation ballistic missile, Agni. Thomas went on to take on the entire responsibility of Agni IV (which can go to a distance of 2,500-3,700km), while she was in charge of one part of the Agni V (5,000-8,000km range) project.

When Agni V took off last week, Thomas says it was “an indescribable and a great” moment. “We watched breathlessly, praying for inner strength as the missile took off on its flight path. The pressure built up as we monitored the path but the flight prediction chart was also giving us positive news. When it reached its destination, we said to each other, ‘We have done it’.”

After the launch, she visited her former boss and mentor, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. “He is the role model for all our Indian scientists. He praised us for doing a good job and gifted me his latest book of poems,” she says with a catch in her voice. Thomas was a junior in the DRDO Lab when Kalam took over as its director for a couple of years before moving on.

“He would stop by each of our desks and leave behind an encouraging word. It was a big thing for juniors at that time to have a director acknowledge us. He left behind this culture at DRDO for us to follow,” she adds.

Kalam often cites her case when he encourages young women students in colleges to take up science. In the last few years, many women have embraced the field that was once seen as a male domain. During her time, Thomas points out, the DRDO Lab had just two or three women scientists; today there are 20 or more.

“Today, young women are only too aware of the opportunities in scientific fields and are thrilled to take up these professions,” she says. “Gender does not matter. You work as a scientist, not as a woman,” she points out testily.

It was her MTech in guided missiles that helped her to rise in the organisation, she reasons. Her area of specialisation, missile guidance technology, was key to the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, started under Kalam’s stewardship in 1983. And it also helped that she had an engineering background.

But engineering was not something Thomas had given serious thought to. She’d joined the stream only because she had a natural flair and passion for mathematics and physics in school, she says. “And my cousins were all studying engineering,” she adds.

Tessy’s childhood had its share of difficulties. Her father, an accountant, was left bedridden after a paralytic stroke when she was just 13. Her mother single-handedly brought up Tessy and her five siblings.

“It must have been tough for my mother — who was not allowed to work — to look after us on her own. Yet she made sure each of her five daughters and one son had a good education. All my sisters are well-placed and my brother has completed his MBA.”

Tessy, the fourth child of the middle-class Syrian Christian couple, was born in Thathampally in Alappuzha or Alleppey. Defence minister A.K. Anthony, who also belongs to Alleppey, is from Cherthala, 25km from her hometown.

“I grew up with the pretty backwaters of Kerala as my backyard. I guess nature gives you strength and good thoughts. The power of nature cannot be undermined in one’s development,” she says reflectively.

Thomas regards her 75-year-old mother, currently living in Alleppey on her own, as her “inspiration”. “I’ve inherited her strong will for sure. I am equally persevering and determined like my mother.”

Clearly, these were qualities that helped her in her job, which calls for a high level of “discipline” since the work is of national importance and often cloaked in secrecy.

“The responsibility level is very high and that keeps us on our feet,” she says. The challenge in the Agni development was the fact that they had no blueprint to work on. “We had to develop the systems and technology on our own and it had to mature, function and be acceptable. It is tough,” Thomas stresses.

What is the implication of Agni V? “We should feel more proud and secure — it is a great thing for all of us,” she says. But she clams up faster than the speed of light when asked why China brushed aside India’s feat. “I don’t think we should talk about such things. As a country, we should keep quiet,” says Thomas, who is fiercely nationalistic and “proud to be an Indian”.

Thomas is now working on more tests for Agni V. “We are working on the technology of multiple re-entry vehicle systems,” reveals Thomas, whose cherished dream of seeing India in the exclusive club of ICBM countries has come true.

If her work is all about unfathomable technical squiggles, her life seems pretty ordinary from the outside. Packing a tiffin box with chappati and curry, she sets off to the DRDO station at 8.45am. In the evenings, when she returns from work, she unwinds by watching television serials.

“There are good family story serials like Pratigya. I like them because the women look so pretty and decked up,” says Thomas, who reveals that she finds ironing clothes a great stress-buster.

Currently, Tessy lives on her own in her DRDO flat. Her husband has been posted to Mumbai, while her son is studying engineering outside Hyderabad. “It is lonely and tough but my work is so satisfying it makes up for the sacrifice,” she admits.

On weekends, being the secretary of the DRDO ladies’ club, she spends time organising events for the wives of DRDO officers and other women scientists. She enjoys reading, but finds time only for “technical journals” these days which help her keep abreast of new developments in technology in her field.

Thomas likes to cook, which she says is another way to de-stress. And like any full-blooded Malayali, she loves her fish curry and rice. But she rues that she has put on weight because she has little time for activities such as walking, running and playing badminton.

The euphoria over the Agni V launch is yet to subside and the media are hounding her. A local women’s TV channel has set up their cameras in the garden outside her flat and is waiting to interview her. Everyone wants a piece of the missile woman.

“What more can I say? I have no secrets to tell. I am just a very down-to-earth woman,” she says with a guarded smile. Down-to-earth, with the sky as her field — what could be better than that?